BookLearning – Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Tuesdays are my amazing days, my days when I shoot off the charts of Pinterest-esque productivity in the six child-free hours given to me.  It’s the day when I do yoga! Bake bread!  Tidy house!  Write! Write! Write!  Especially write write write!  At least this is how it plays out in my head , on the other side of my eyelids, just before I wake up.  It never really goes like this.  And especially so today.


As we’re approaching the winter solstice, I’m feeling the need to slow down and to genuinely immerse myself in the things that I so often do just to tick off the list (sorry, yoga and meditation – we really need to sort out our relationship in the new year).  And the same goes for writing; sometimes I’ll just write any old thing so that I can stand in front of the invisible gods who sit in judgement of me every day and say “see? I did some writing – I’m a good girl”  Who are these judges? And what’s the prize for my virtue?  What’s on the other side of that velvet curtain? In truth, my writing has been a bit thin recently.  I think that’s largely because I’m using the time to write while not doing enough to give me things to write about.  I need some fuel.  And so I did just that, or as much of that as I could do on a rainy day in Manchester.


I sat in the big grey chair  with the yellow throw next to the fire.  I raised the blinds so I could see the garden from where I sat.  And I finished reading Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.


This book came out a few years ago, but I am only just reading it now because I have recently become aware (and subsequently very ashamed) of my blanket attitudes to racism.  I speak from a position of white privilege when I say that I have coasted on the very general, liberal opinion of  ‘all racism is bad’, which is kind of a pass on the issue itself, because if i just assume that general position, then I don’t have to think about it any further.  I’ve already chosen the right answer, so why keep learning?    Of course racism is bad, but I have, and still have very little understanding of the nuances of racism.  So, amongst other things I’m choosing books that can help me to understand, and gain a bit more clarity and insight on issues of race and oppression.  I’m a work in progress on this, so I’m not going to embarrass myself by drawing some nebulous conclusions here.   What I do feel more qualified to speak about is her words – and as a fundamentally selfish person, what did I learn from her writing style? What is my takeaway (to use nasty corporatespeak) for any writing I may get round to in future?

I think Americanah is incredible; it taught me things about the subtleties of racism that I wouldn’t have understood if they were presented to me in an essay or documentary, largely because Adichie’s characters felt real and the experiences that she describes were lived; they had unexpected detail, they contradicted themselves, they didn’t go where i expected them to.  Ifemelu’s inability to communicate with her lover was frustrating and irritating, yet her cojones in other situations was inspiring.  The description of the hair salon at the start of the novel was specific, unique and real, as was the moment when Ifemelu realises how much she missed the layer of oil on top of her mother’s stew (evocative and truthful).  The writer has incredible instinct and dwells on the ‘scenes’ that you want to know more about; like the hair salon, again, or the atmosphere in the magazine office, back in Nigeria.  I think this takes great confidence – some of these scenes are secondary to the straight surface plot of the novel (although they do reveal further insight into racial stereotyping and the experience of an African woman in America) but we want to see them, hear them – I’d love to know how much of the novel she cut, or whether she knew exactly what she wanted to include from the get go. (does anyone know that, when writing a novel?)   It’s a compelling read, one which covers so many different cultures and societal set ups without feeling didactic or preachy.  It’s bitter, heartfelt, romantic and grim.  It is also sensitively plotted and alive with texture and detail,  ‘takeaways’ (barf) for my next piece of writing, which I will write should I ever take leave of the grey chair next to the fire.

Read it and weep


Not a fair proximation of the real experience.


So I’m writing a novel (yeah, I know.).  And I quite like it, especially as I’m up to about 12000 words and I haven’t read any of them back.  It’s an experiment of sorts, because when I edit, I become so self critical that I talk myself out of finishing.  My writing folder is crammed full of half writ pieces, some of which probably had promise, but fell prey to my insatiable inner critic (thanks Julia Cameron) and now lay forgotten by the roadside of my dreams. Or something like that.

Sooo, the novel.  Aha, the novel.


Right, it is proving tricky to write it without actually looking at it properly because somewhere along the line it has turned into a murder mystery,  This is interesting in itself as I thought my first novel would be the kind of tome that would make Jonathan Franzen explode into flames at the wonder of it and put all human history into perfect order and touch everyone from the Hong Kong businessman to the Kalahari tribeswoman with its grace,truth and beauty. In truth, I don’t think I’ve quite nailed it with this one.

What it also means is that, because I haven’t been reading it back and have no plan to write from, I have not kept tabs on my facts and have clearly scuppered the hermeneutic.  When you see portraits of crime writers in the Books sections there’s always an out of focus whiteboard in the background on which are pinned character breakdowns and locations and marker pen scribblings showing how it all  adds up.  Well, mine is a new approach.  Wonderful, innovative, never-been-published me. 


So it won’t make sense, I know this.  How could Jasper have been in the attic when he was evidently rehearsing with Sooki at the time?  But I will go back and put it straight.  In fact, listen to this link below if you’re reading this – a really good short essay about something called ‘ret-conning’ which is when writers go back and change facts in comic books or detective fiction to iron out discrepancies (Conan Doyle’s famous example was killing off Holmes and then bringing him back 6 years later):


I reckon I’ll have a fair amount of ret-conning to do, but at least I’m in good company..  The novel is set in a drama school which means I can finally put my past to good use.  I did a one year course at such an institution, which basically means I was a cash pinata, constantly whacked for fees and charges and offered the glibbest acting advice in return by a series of disinterested ‘professionals’ who hadn’t had a sniff of a job in years.  It really was that bad –  I could have got a better training if I had browsed the celebrity biography section at WHSmiths for a few minutes.  Still I made some good friends and got an agent and for a while almost enjoyed the professional acting world, before coming to my senses and escaping for good. 

12,000 words and counting.  I’m aiming for 15,000 by the end of next week.  Will keep you posted.